Farmers in Sauk and Columbia counties helped local schools bolster their STEM offerings with $10,000 grants.

Baraboo High School and the Cambria-Friesland School District each won a $10,000 America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education grant meant to enhance science, technology, engineering and math programs after they were nominated by local farmers.

Kristina Puntney, agriculture teacher at BHS, said nine Baraboo-area farmers helped her win the funds, which she used to purchase an aquaponics system for the agriculture program.

It’s an opportunity for students “to see a very large, quickly growing area in agriculture that they would not otherwise get to experience if it weren’t for this grant,” she said. “Aquaponics is… becoming very, very popular, and it’s giving them a sustainable method to be able to grow their own food.”

For the first time, BHS offered a Wisconsin Fish and Aquaculture class this school year, but once Puntney learned her program was awarded the grant, she decided to expand the class’ scope to aquaponics. Instead of focusing solely on fish farming, the class explores raising fish and plants together.

After its fish are fed, the aquaponics system will break down their waste, converting it to a form that feeds plants, which then filter the water.

“So, it’s kind of like an ecosystem within itself,” Puntney said.

She said the grant is giving students more opportunities and the ability to consider possible careers. Students’ tasks will include testing the system’s water daily, feeding the fish and planting and harvesting produce at the correct time. She noted they’ll have to meet certain standards to ensure the iceberg lettuce they grow can be used by the school cafeteria.

“It allows students to do more than just read textbooks,” she said. “They are able to have hands-on opportunities, and they’re able to physically do the tasks that people in this industry have to do.”

At Cambria-Friesland, the funds will be used to purchase 10 Go Direct Deluxe Packages, each of which consist of various tools, including a heart-rate monitor, a gas sensor and a probe that measures electrical conductivity.

Jackie Drews, who teaches high school science, was “pretty excited” to learn her district had won the grant. Much of the equipment her students use is outdated and requires manual data collection, such as a standard thermometer with a bulb on the end, she said.

Starting in October, students in sixth through 12th grades will get to use the new devices -- including temperature probes -- during science classes.

Like the rest of the Go Direct tools, the new temperature probes will plug directly into students’ Chromebooks, allowing them to automatically record temperature data at set intervals. That gives students more classroom time to analyze data and see the relationships between variables such as volume, pressure and temperature.

“The technology we have is going to help us to collect data very accurately and efficiently and allow us more time to, like, (consider) ‘Hey, what does this data actually mean?’” Drews said. “So more critical thinking skills can be accomplished using these tools.”

Drews said five local farmers nominated Cambria-Friesland for the grant. She and several other middle/high school employees collaborated on the application.

Both districts will be presented with grant checks during athletics events Tuesday.

Sponsored by the Bayer Fund, America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education program awarded more than $2.3 million in grants in 2019 to rural schools across the U.S., according to a news release. About 30 “farmer leaders” select the winning applications, the release said.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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